26 October 2016

How to Learn Arabic In Jeddah

Some expat postings are easy in terms of languages, some are more challenging.  In four of my postings  I have been lucky to speak a language that is either the national language or extremely widely spoken.  Others have required me to learn to communicate in another tongue. 

I tend to approach languages by getting an introductory ‘teach yourself’ book or app and then, when I have enough basic information, just start to converse.  In Venezuela my parents gave me a language book to read then told me I had ‘volunteered’ to translate to and from Spanish  for the English, German and Dutch children at company summer camp.  It was a real ‘in at the deep end’ moment but it did work, by the end of the week I had some basic facility in the language, albeit with a very strong local accent!  In fact I have always made the best progress in a language when living somewhere where people do not speak English (nowhere else really speaks Dutch!) as it forces me to learn.  I adopt a pragmatic approach.  I don’t need to speak a language perfectly but I do need to be able to communicate.  Once I can do that I can start to improve and find that people are generally happy to help.  One fruit stall holder at a market in Astana used to reward me with a piece of fruit if I had improved since she had last seen me.

Arabic has not been so easy to learn, partly because on a day to day basis most people we come in contact with speak perfect English.  Colleagues, all parents at school and most residents of our compound do, most shop keepers, Expat or Saudi, do too.  I have tried to learn using apps but the dialect here is very different to the language used in them and because of the way the letters of the alphabet change depending on their position in a word it has been almost impossible for me to self teach.
Confusing is not the word!
I was over the moon, therefore, when I found a language course offered by a local institute (The Jeddah Cultural Exchange Centre).  The course is broken into parts and I was able to register for the beginners’ sessions.  The aim of these was to gain familiarity with the alphabet and learn some basic vocabulary.  The course was quite intensive, three nights a week for four weeks.  The course was taught in English which was perfect for me although I have a huge amount of respect for the pupils for whom English is a second language!  Our teacher, a Syrian lady now living in Jeddah, started by teaching us the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet and how to recognise them, not just as a stand-alone letter but when we saw them at the beginning, middle and end of a word.

I thought Cyrillic, with its multiple letters for Y, was challenging but for someone used to the Latin Alphabet Arabic is a whole new level of difficult.  There are 4 or 5  different forms of the letter T, some are distinct but others are impossible for my ear to distinguish from each other, the two Ks are equally confusing.  The 2 (or 3) Ds are, at least distinct (in written if not in spoken form) as are the three forms of S, the two As and the two different H’s.  Yet more letters do double duty.  The Y can stand for Y or E and the W for W and O.  There are even more letters that are only used at the ends of words.  Short vowels (A, I and U)  are modifiers used above or below the word to change the pronunciation of a letter ie Ba, Bi, Bu, but these are not typically written so you just have to ‘know’ which vowel is used where.  A lot of the letters look suspiciously similar when written; a misplaced dot can mean the difference between a J and a K or a Z and an R and whether or not a loop is coloured in can change a GH to an F. 

It was enough to give me a headache, gradually, however, things started to make sense.  I have started to be able to read simple words (I was over the moon to read Balsamic on the vinegar bottle and Cocoa on the cocoa tin).  The course has been a success because it does not concentrate on the written form of the language to the exclusion of everything else (a common aspect of language courses here).  Our teacher has also worked hard to make sure that we are able to communicate.  The other day I clarified a measurement  length of an Abaya in Arabic and I felt ridiculously pleased.  The lady in the shop did too and gave me a huge grin. 

The course has a secondary benefit as well and that is the chance to get to know other people in Jeddah.  Participants registered on the course are from all over the world, India, South Africa, UK, Philippines, Turkey, US and Malaysia.  We have all come to Jeddah for very different reasons but it is lovely to get to know each other. 

There is a long way to go, building vocabulary (and retaining it) is challenging because I do not have to use the language every day.  I have registered for the second level course to try to keep the momentum in my studies.

For more posts on life in Saudi please click on the photo below

Ersatz Expat


  1. MaasAllah it is a great article about the course , i really love being classmates with people all over the world,too keep on writing please i will follow

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